House of Commons
Tuesday 5 September 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Middle Level Bill
That the promoters of the Middle Level Bill, which originated in this House in the previous Session on 24 January 2017, may have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 12 September.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Legal Aid: Access
The Legal Aid Agency regularly reviews the capacity of the legal aid market to cope with demand for legal aid and takes urgent action where any regional shortfall develops. I intend to look more widely at the impact of recent policy changes on access to legal aid as part of a forthcoming post-implementation review, about which I hope to be able to say more shortly.
The latest report from the Children’s Society, “Cut off from Justice”, found that in Yorkshire we saw a 56% drop in the availability of free immigration advice between 2012 and 2016. Given the acute vulnerabilities of unaccompanied children who need to access legal advice, will the Secretary of State commit to consider those children in the upcoming review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012?
There will certainly be an opportunity, as the hon. Lady wishes, for representations to be made and consideration to be given to that sort of change. While the most recent legislation did indeed exclude non-asylum immigration matters, much family law, including cases involving vulnerable children who might be taken into local authority care, is still eligible for legal aid.
While it is undoubtedly true that fewer people have access to legal aid than was the case before the reforms, it is also true that lots of people who are entitled to legal aid are not getting it. What can the Justice Secretary do to make sure that those people receive the finance that they need to get the access to justice that they require?
If people believe that they are entitled to legal aid, I would strongly encourage them to apply to the relevant authorities and to one of the legal aid providers that are contracted to provide that kind of advice. Even after the exclusion of certain categories in the most recent legislative reform, last year’s legal aid expenditure still amounted to £1.6 billion, which is nearly a quarter of my Department’s entire expenditure.
What is important is that we manage legal aid in a way that directs finite taxpayer resources to those cases where there is greatest need, and that we look actively for ways to simplify access to justice, including through the use of digital technology, so that people do not feel the need always to have that kind of professional representation.
Barely a third of immigration detainees even know that they are entitled to 30 minutes of free legal advice in England and Wales, and only half have ever been able to access it. Given the horror show in Brook House that we saw on last night’s “Panorama”, will the Government act urgently to ensure that all detainees get access to the free legal aid that they urgently require?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the centre that was the subject of last night’s programme is accountable to the Home Office. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is concerned about the allegations and appropriate action is being taken.
On the hon. Gentleman’s broader point, legal aid is still available for asylum cases. I would certainly hope that appropriate measures are taken in every relevant establishment to bring those rights to the attention of anyone who is detained and might qualify for legal aid.
I would hope to able to give Parliament details in the relatively near future. I am conscious that this work has been promised. We have not yet been able to make an announcement, but the hon. Lady will appreciate that matters such as a general election and a change of Ministers have intervened. I want to press ahead with this as soon as possible.
Employment Tribunals: Rebates
Following the Supreme Court judgment on employment tribunal fees of the end of July, we immediately stopped charging them. We are putting in place arrangements to refund those who have paid the fees in the past, and we will announce the practical, detailed arrangements shortly.
I have been contacted by a constituent who highlighted the stress and financial burden that was placed on them while going through an employment tribunal case that they ultimately won. Will the Minister ensure that those who are entitled to claim back employment tribunal fees are made aware of the process and reunited with their money in a timely fashion?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it can be quite an ordeal to go to an employment tribunal—or any tribunal—which is why I pay tribute to the conciliation work of ACAS. We will set out practical arrangements for the reimbursement of those fees. We want to ensure that all the points—particularly about people’s awareness—are properly thought through before we do that.
It is no pleasure to say that a number of the criticisms of the development of this policy were foreshadowed in a Justice Committee report in the previous Session. As well as rightly and promptly acting to reimburse fees paid, will the Minister undertake to look at some of the specific recommendations in that report and at the factual findings on the evidence in the Court’s judgment? That would highlight a better way of developing policy in this area so that we do not end up in this situation again.
In due course.
The cost of employment tribunals last year was £68 million. Only £8 million came from fees; the rest was from taxpayers. It is inherently difficult to balance the contribution required by those who use the justice system against the amount that needs to be borne by the taxpayer, and we recognise that we got that balance wrong. We have ended those fees and are looking at practical arrangements to ensure that those affected are reimbursed.
The Women and Equalities Committee also called for changes in tribunal fees, particularly because they affect pregnant women and new mums, who have experienced significant increases in discrimination at work in the past 10 years. Will the Minister undertake to look at the other part of our recommendation, which is to increase the time limit from three months to six months for pregnant women and new mums to bring cases to court?
May I start by welcoming the Minister to his place?
The Supreme Court ruled that the secondary legislation that brought in the employment tribunal fees interfered with access to justice and employment rights, and that it discriminated unlawfully. Does the Minister accept that the Supreme Court’s judgment illustrates that fundamental rights such as equality and access to justice should not be changed or undermined by secondary legislation that receives little or no parliamentary scrutiny?
The hon. and learned Lady makes her point in a typically powerful way. The Supreme Court also recognised that fees can have a role to play. Of course, they do help to secure justice and access to justice by making the necessary resources available. Equally, we recognise that we got the balance wrong. That is why we have taken immediate action to end the fees. We will be coming up with proposals on the practical arrangements for reimbursement shortly.
In 2015, the Scottish Government said that as soon as the power to do so was devolved—and that is pending—they would abolish employment tribunal fees. Does the Minister agree that the fact that the Scottish Government chose to do that voluntarily—the UK Government were forced to do so by the Supreme Court—shows that the case for the devolution of employment law to Scotland is strong so that the Scottish Government may protect the interests of Scottish workers and access to justice?
In the Supreme Court, Baroness Hale was very concerned about meritorious claims being put off by the fees. She also acknowledged that there are some unmeritorious claims, and those are the ones that damage relations in the workplace. Will the Minister consider fairer ways of sifting out unmeritorious claims, such as having a sift before the application is made into a full case?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point and that is certainly something we can look at. Equally, it is fair to say we got the balance wrong on the specific issue of fees. One of the strong elements we are looking to reinforce is the role of ACAS. We have seen that conciliation and the number of cases referred to conciliation have had a strong impact on reducing the number of cases that need to go to court or a tribunal.
I wrote to the Secretary of State back in July to call on him to issue a full and unequivocal apology to working people for deliberately and unlawfully blocking their access to justice through employment tribunal fees. Last week, I received a wholly inadequate reply, which I have here. Will the Minister apologise today for the suffering that this policy has caused hundreds of thousands of working people?
We have conceded that we got the balance wrong. I am happy to say that I am very sorry for any frustration or deleterious impact that this has caused anyone who has been affected. That is why we are acting so quickly to end the charges and to make sure there are practical arrangements for the reimbursement of anyone affected by these fees.
3. How Government investment in (a) cyber-security and (b) the National Cyber Security Centre will support victims of cyber-crime; and if he will make a statement. (900666)
The Government are investing £1.9 billion to transform our ability to respond to the cyber-threats we face. This includes continuing to develop our support to victims of cyber-crime. I am committed to making sure that victims get the support they need to cope with and, as far as possible, recover from the effects of crime. The National Cyber Security Centre is part of GCHQ, which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has ministerial responsibility for.
Given that it is Government policy that victim support is commissioned locally by individual police and crime commissioners, is the Minister content that there is sufficient resource for victim support? Given the year-on-year increase in cyber-crime, and considering the national and international nature and background of cyber-criminals, does he not agree that a single, national approach to victim support would act as a better deterrent and a better support structure for victims, rather than allowing criminals to cherry-pick among the 43 police forces?
As I made clear in my initial response, cyber-security policy does not sit with this Department—in fact, it sits with the Cabinet Office. Victim support funding has gone up from £51 million in 2010-11, and I was pleased to announce that it is going up to £96 million in 2017-18. Most of that is spent via PCCs. Importantly, I have put in place an audit of the performance of PCCs with regard to funding for victims’ services.
20. As crime changes and the focus on cyber-crime grows, what assurances can the Minister give us that police budgets will match that changed focus and that we will not see a loss of bobbies on the beat as resources are inevitably shifted? (900684)
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. We committed to the victims’ Bill in the last manifesto. We are up against it in terms of parliamentary time, as I am sure he understands, but work continues on the legislation most likely to underpin the victims’ code.
The Minister will recognise how vital international co-operation is in tackling cyber-crime. I hope he is aware of the excellent work done by Europol, with, for example, the UK sending over 400,000 malware files to its malware analysis service since its inception just two years ago. Have the Government decided whether the UK will stay part of that EU mechanism to fight cyber-crime?
Child Sex Abuse: Compensation
Child sexual abuse is abhorrent. The taxpayer-funded criminal injuries compensation scheme provides an important avenue of redress for victims and is accessible to victims of violent crimes, including physical and sexual assaults. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority administers the scheme and decides all claims individually, independently of Ministers and Parliament.
Will the Secretary of State commit to updating the guidance in three specific areas? First, children cannot be complicit in their own abuse. Secondly, as part of a grooming process, children are coerced into carrying out criminal activities. Thirdly, will he look at compensation for victims of family abuse under the same roof before 1979? At the moment, CICA is denying compensation on those grounds.
I am happy to look further at all those three issues. Following some of the concerns expressed earlier this year, CICA decided to mount an urgent re-examination of its own internal guidelines—in particular, to make sure that there is no risk that a child could be disqualified from compensation because they had given consent when that consent had, in effect, been forced from them by a subtle process of grooming. The Department is also aware of concerns that have been raised about how the rules of the scheme work more generally in relation to cases of child sexual abuse. We are talking to organisations such as Barnardo’s and Victim Support in detail about those concerns and the reforms that they propose to deal with them.
If it is a criminal offence to have sex with a child, how is such an offence anything but a crime of violence? To say that child victims cannot receive compensation for their abuse is simply victim blaming. The definition of a crime of violence was last reviewed five years ago. When will this be reassessed to ensure that sexually abused children are not denied compensation?
As I have said, we are discussing with the various charities the concerns that they have expressed. If the hon. Lady’s point was about the distinction that CICA makes between consent in law and consent in fact, this has been written into the law since it was first introduced by the previous Labour Government, I believe, and administered during their time in office. Its purpose was to ensure that we did not end up in a situation where, for example, two 15-year-olds engaging in sexual intercourse automatically led to a claim for compensation —it would be left to the authority to look at the facts of the case. I am very willing to look at, and CICA is already looking at, the guidance that applies to individual cases, but we should not lose sight of the fact that there was a reasonable motive behind the law as it was originally drafted.
No one will deny the absolute right and need of victims to receive proper compensation from CICA under these conditions, but does not the Secretary of State agree that there may be occasions—as in, for example, the very grave allegations made against the late Sir Edward Heath—when the informant is incentivised in one way or another to make the allegation by the likelihood of getting some kind of compensation? Should not the compensation wait so that the outcome of the investigation is known before the person making the allegations is paid?
The scheme operates to provide compensation for people who are victims of crime. Probably all of us, as constituency Members, can think of cases when somebody has been the victim of an assault, but it has been impossible to successfully prosecute the person or people responsible. A direct link to a trial and conviction is therefore not in the scheme. However, I do agree with my hon. Friend that if there is evidence that compensation has been sought fraudulently, the authority ought to seek the necessary legal action to recover those funds.
Offenders: Education and Employment
Education and employment opportunities are crucial to help offenders to turn around their lives. In line with our reforms, every prisoner will have a personal learning plan linked to their sentence plan. To make this reform effective, we are giving governors control over their education budgets to organise courses that fit prisoners’ needs.
Gardening and horticultural schemes for growing edible crops are increasingly being incorporated into prison programmes and programmes for those on remand up and down the country, giving offenders transferrable skills and offering them future employment opportunities, as well as encouraging self-confidence and, quite often, transforming unattractive concrete yards into much more pleasant green spaces. Has a formal assessment been made of some of those programmes, with a view to rolling out the best of the models even more widely?
My hon. Friend is right. I remember visiting Rye Hill prison near Daventry and seeing the pride with which prisoners tended their gardens; they spent hours doing so. She may be aware of the Royal Horticultural Society Windlesham trophy award, which is judged by an independent panel that looks at the best gardening schemes across the prison estate. If she does not mind, I should be delighted to put her name forward to be a judge.
Category D prisons often have the very best examples of rehabilitation as they prepare to let their prisoners back into the community. North Sea Camp in my constituency has worked with the council not only on that rehabilitative work to prepare prisoners for work but, for example, on fly-tipping, saving the taxpayer £300,000. Does the Minister agree that the other prisons in the sector can learn from category D’s rehabilitative practices, and will he come to North Sea Camp and have a look at how well they can work?
My hon. Friend has lighted on an important principle. Work in prison is vital to preparing prisoners for life after release—North Sea Camp has an excellent example—which is why I am supporting the New Futures Network to develop relationships between employers, governors and the world of work. I would be delighted to visit North Sea Camp in due course.
I have never heard such complacency from the Government. The Prison Service is a shambles, and at the heart of that shambles is the lack of education, the lack of literacy, the lack of numeracy and the lack of apprenticeships—services that, as they are for our Scandinavian brethren, should be in every prison. When is the Minister going to wake up?
The hon. Gentleman has come back from his summer holiday with his customary passion. I agree that if prisons are to work properly we need to give people the opportunity to turn their lives around. Prison reform is important to this Government. That is why we are giving governors more control of their budgets and more freedom to implement the plans that are necessary for offenders to turn their lives around. I share his concern and his passion, and such work is a priority for this Government.
How will the personal learning plans of which the Minister has just spoken operate when a prisoner is transferred from one prison to another? What guarantees can he give that the education path on which that prisoner has commenced can be continued in his or her new setting, and that there will be consistency of offer right across the prison estate?
The hon. Lady points out a very serious problem that currently exists on the estate. Prisoners are transferred and cannot continue courses that they have started—for example, some were on GCSE programmes and cannot finish them. We are looking at courses and technology systems that allow them to carry on what they have been doing when they are transferred from one prison to another, so that there is progression on all the courses. I completely agree with her, but we are looking at it.
21. If prison is to achieve anything, it must change lives. It has the best chance of doing that if we offer people both education and assisted places in work on release. Given that three fifths of offenders still leave prison without identified education or any employment opportunities, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or my hon. Friend assure us that these programmes will be at the centre of the prison system and describe how these policies are being adjusted for greater success? (900685)
My hon. Friend is right. About 50% of prisoners have the reading age and numeracy skills of an 11-year-old. If we are to give them a chance in life, we need to sort out education, but we also need to give them employment skills that are valued in the workplace. That is why prison reform, which is at the heart of the White Paper that the Government published last November, is carrying on at pace.
The chief inspectors of prisons and of probation recently issued a devastating report on the Government’s flagship community rehabilitation companies, which stated:
“None of the prisoners had been helped into employment by through-the-gate services”.
Will the Minister commit to an urgent review of the role of CRCs, including their delivery of education and employment services, and will he guarantee that no extra money will be passed on to those private companies until they can be proven to be fit for purpose?
The probation reforms that the previous Conservative Government rolled out mean that 45,000 offenders who previously would not have been supervised, because they had been in prison for less than 12 months, are now being supervised. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are challenges with what is a first-generation outsourcing programme. We have an ongoing probation review and extra funds have been invested in the CRCs, but we are still within the funding envelope that was decided at the start of the programme. We are carrying out the review to make sure that through-the-gate and other services operate as was envisaged in the original vision.
Prisons: Extremism and Radicalisation
6. What steps the Government are taking to counter extremism and radicalisation in prisons. (900669)
We have established a new extremism unit, between Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and the Home Office, to strengthen our approach to tackling the threat of extremism in prisons and probation. Prison governors and frontline staff in prisons and the probation service are being given the training, skills and authority needed to challenge extremist views and take action against them. The first separation centre at HMP Frankland in County Durham was opened in June 2017, and the first prisoners are now being held there. Those facilities will hold the most subversive extremist prisoners, protecting the more vulnerable from their poisonous ideology.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, and it is right to say that extremists target and manipulate the prisoners who they think will be most susceptible. Given his answer, what impact does he anticipate the removal of such individuals will have on the prison population as a whole?
The decision to proceed with the separation centre was taken only after very careful thought. We judged that it would be beneficial for the general prison population, and in particular for vulnerable and impressionable prisoners, if we could take out of association with them those who pose the greatest risk. Those who are going to be in separation centres will be assessed by experts regularly, and they will be returned to the mainstream prison population only if it is judged that the risk they present has reduced to a level that can be effectively managed there.
Many young men start their journey towards radicalisation by seeking out in prison the strong male role models they so often lack in their lives outside. What is the Department doing to ensure that there are more better role models within the prison estate to guide them on to a better path?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which I think has relevance not just to matters of penal policy but to social policy more generally. Many charitable and voluntary organisations are helping—for example, by bringing sport into prisons—to provide the adult male role models of whom he wants more. In the context of extremism, it is also important to pay tribute to the work of the imams in the prison chaplaincy service who are arguing, from a basis of scholarship and expertise, to rebut the extremist ideology that some have espoused.
Figures from the right hon. Gentleman’s own Department show that there are approximately 1,000 prisoners who have either been radicalised or are vulnerable to being radicalised. When they leave prison, those such as Khalid Masood, the Westminster terrorist, need to be effectively monitored. Is the Lord Chancellor satisfied that there is a sufficiently robust relationship between the police and the prison authorities to make sure that when such people come out of prison we know where they are and what they are doing?
The information we have is that only one of those involved in the recent attacks in London and Manchester had spent time in prison. That dated back to 2003 and there was no evidence to suggest that that man had been radicalised in prison. We clearly want the strongest possible joint work between the police, the Prison Service and the probation service. I believe that what we have at the moment is strong, but there are always lessons that can be learned and improvements that can be sought. We are committed not to be complacent but to continue with vigilance and determination.
It is part of the duty of the Prison Service appropriately to look after all those whom the courts have sent into custody. We have found the money for the separation centres from within Ministry of Justice budgets—a sensible prioritisation of expenditure that will bring benefits to the management of the prison population more generally by separating those who pose a particular risk through extremist ideology.
Child Sexual Exploitation: Sentencing
We have a robust sentencing framework for all crimes involving child sexual exploitation. The changes made in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 reinforced those punishments, giving the Parole Board a greater role to make sure that serious offenders are released only when it is safe.
Mubarek Ali will be released from prison on 1 November, five years after receiving a sentence of 22 years for child sexual exploitation in Telford. As the Minister just said, legislation was passed in 2015 to ensure that most serious offenders cannot be released until they have served two thirds of their sentence and satisfied the Parole Board that they are not a risk. What can he do to ensure that that legislation applies in this case?
I am aware of the case my hon. Friend raises, and of the heinous crimes that were committed and the appalling impact they had on the victims. She will know that the overhaul of the sentencing framework between 2012 and 2015 means that that type of sentence would not now be passed in that type of case. She will also appreciate that I cannot intervene in individual cases and that changes to legislation to strengthen sentences cannot be passed retrospectively. That is the problem and challenge in this case.
Bearing in mind that 56% of all victims of sexual offences in Northern Ireland in 2011 were under the age of 18, will the Minister outline the multi-regional approach that will be taken to deal with the aftermath of the sexual exploitation of children in the transition to adulthood?
One barrier to successful prosecutions in child sexual exploitation cases is the fact that, too often, victims are wrongly thought to be complicit in their own exploitation. That highlights the importance of the issue my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) just raised. There must be absolutely no suggestion in any Government guidance that children can be complicit in their own exploitation. That is why the guidance from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority needs to be changed—and needs to be changed now.
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. No one wants to lay the blame at the door of any victim, let alone the most vulnerable—in this case children. She heard what the Secretary of State said about CICA: it will be looked at in the context of the issues that have arisen recently. It operates in a different context from the criminal justice system, in that it can apply when there has not been a criminal conviction.
Drones are a serious threat to order and stability in our prisons, given the contraband that they are used to smuggle. Our intelligence work tells us that a lot of this activity is backed up by organised crime gangs. That is why we have invested in our intelligence teams. There is also a specialist unit between the Prison Service and the police service to track down and prosecute such offenders. In the last year alone, there have been 40 arrests and 11 convictions of criminals involved in drone activity, resulting in those convicted serving a total of 40 years in jail.
Drones are one way in which drugs are smuggled into our prisons, but we are looking at all possible ways. For example, paper is sometimes impregnated with new psychoactive substances, which makes them very difficult to detect. The way to tackle the supply is to get intelligence not just from each establishment but from different parts of the Prison Service so that we can respond appropriately. We are investing heavily in doing so to combat the drugs problem in our prisons.
The escape in February of a convicted murderer serving a 30-year sentence was linked to the dropping of a mobile phone into a prison in Liverpool using a drone so that he could liaise with villains outside to effect his escape. What steps is the Minister taking to enhance and expand the scheme that he has put in place to disrupt drones over prisons? In passing, has he found the prisoner yet?
The right hon. Gentleman, as a former prisons Minister, is well aware that the job of tracking down and arresting criminals is one for the police service, not the prisons Minister. In response to his other question, we are looking at various types of technology to disrupt drones flying into our prisons to deliver contraband.
In 2014, the Government introduced a requirement for potential claimants to consider conciliation before starting proceedings at the employment tribunal. The number of cases going to conciliation quadrupled, rising to 92,000 in 2015-16.
In the year after employment tribunal fees were introduced, sex discrimination claims fell by 67% and pregnancy discrimination claims by 37%. The Supreme Court made it clear in its recent judgment that fees disproportionately affected women. The Minister has outlined plans to reimburse those who have submitted claims, but what steps will be taken to compensate people who were denied access to justice because they could not afford to pursue a claim in the first place?
The hon. Lady is right to refer to the ending of the fees and the proposals for reimbursement that we will bring forward shortly. If there were potential claims that should have been made but were not, anyone who was unable to bring a claim can submit to the employment tribunal to have their case heard outside the usual time limits. The judiciary will consider those applications case by case.
European Court of Justice
The Government have been clear that in leaving the EU we will bring about an end to the direct jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the United Kingdom.
As you know, Mr Speaker, Scotland has its own distinct legal system. Brexit will have a direct impact on that system, on justice agencies in Scotland and on a range of devolved issues. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that distinction will be given serious consideration as the Brexit negotiations progress?
Yes. Indeed, when I spoke to the Scottish Justice Minister Michael Matheson last month I emphasised to him that one of our key objectives in the official and ministerial-level meetings between my Department and his would be to ensure that the interests and features of the Scottish justice system are properly reflected in the UK’s work, particularly on future civil judicial co-operation with the European Union.
In January, the Prime Minister boldly and unambiguously asserted that Brexit would allow the UK to take back control of its laws and bring to an end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain. Last month, however, the official Government document on the ECJ said something entirely different: Britain would be willing to work with the EU on arrangements for judicial supervision. Given that remarkable change, how did the Prime Minister get it so wrong in January?
The hon. Gentleman is misreading the Government’s position. The Prime Minister was very clear in her Lancaster House speech, as the Government have been, that this country’s exit from the European Union means that the EU’s treaties will cease to apply to the United Kingdom and that therefore the direct effect that decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union have in the United Kingdom will cease from that point. What is also the case, as spelled out in the Government paper on dispute resolution, is that there are many international examples of arbitration mechanisms that involve different jurisdictions coming together to agree how to take account of their different courts’ views in coming to a settlement when a dispute arises. We are approaching these negotiations in a constructive fashion.
Courts: Victims and Witnesses
We are testing pre-trial cross-examination for child and vulnerable victims and witnesses in the Crown court, and testing this provision for certain eligible intimidated victims in three Crown court centres this autumn. We have installed remote links in each region and recently completed work on model waiting rooms. We recognise that there are concerns about the operation of the victims’ code, and we are considering how compliance might be monitored and improved.
I welcome that answer. Despite the progress that has been made, attending court as a witness, and particularly as a victim, can still be very stressful. Will my hon. Friend enlarge on what steps the Government are taking to ensure that victims and witnesses know what to expect when they attend court, and that they are treated with respect in court and know when they are required?
We want to use technology to assist all witnesses, not just those who are vulnerable and intimidated. That is why we are exploring ways of making best use of technology, such as video links, to allow witnesses to avoid the stress and/or inconvenience of having to be physically present in the courtroom. We also plan to develop an online tool, which will allow witnesses to access information about a case, such as a trial date, quickly and easily.
Research from Victim Support found that more than half of victims have unwanted contact with the defendant at court. How will the Government’s court reforms ensure that separate entrances, waiting rooms and facilities are standard across all criminal courts?
As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, the Government are investing more than £1 billion to transform and modernise our court systems to make sure they put the needs of victims first. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service recently established model victim and witness waiting rooms at Nottingham justice centre, Manchester magistrates court, Newcastle Crown court, Liverpool Crown court and Aldershot justice centre, drawing on feedback from the Victims’ Commissioner, the Witness Service and court users.
The Minister will be aware that decisions on the support received by police and crime commissioners to work with victims are often made very late in the financial year. Will he consider three-year-long provision, so that services can be provided more efficiently and with greater stability?
There are areas where PCCs are doing very good work and there are areas where the work is perhaps not as successful. I have announced annual awards only because I want to get to grips with the evidence of what works, so that the money can follow that and we can deliver better services for victims.
Prior to the introduction of the Prisons and Courts Bill in the previous Parliament, no research had been carried out into the effects of virtual justice reforms on witnesses—victims or defendants—or the extent of expected savings. Will the Minister guarantee that research into these key areas will be done and published in advance of the Bill being brought back to the House?
22. Justice delayed can be justice denied. It can also be very distressing for victims and witnesses, such as constituents of mine, to suffer repeated delays in the scheduling and notification of hearing dates and the notification of verdicts, which in some cases have even been learnt from the opposing parties. What can be done to improve court processes and timeframes, and their communication? (900686)
All criminal justice agencies are committed to keeping victims and witnesses informed about their cases. The outcomes of cases involving vulnerable victims and witnesses are available in court systems within 24 hours. Professionals who are involved in a case and are present on the day will know the outcome immediately. If my hon. Friend is aware of details of any other cases in which that may not be happening, will he please write to me? I will then respond.
Prison Officers: Recruitment
Between the start of January and the end of June 2017, there has been a net increase of 868 new prison officers. That puts us well on track to recruit 2,500 new officers by December 2018.
The Minister will be aware of the major drugs finds and related problems at Holme House prison in my constituency, where experienced officers have left and have been replaced by 18-year-old recruits. Does he really think that recruiting youngsters is the answer when it comes to meeting the needs of our increasing prison population, tackling drugs, and solving the crisis in the Prison Service?
I take issue with the implication behind the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are recruiting new prison officers. We were all inexperienced once, but that did not mean that we were not capable of doing our jobs. I have been to the Newbold Revel training centre; I know that many of our recruits are of the highest calibre, and that the recruitment methods are those that have been used over a number of years. The Opposition did not believe that we could deliver these numbers, but we are delivering them, and I think that the Opposition should be supporting the Government.
As a result of the Government’s excellent policy, a new, modern prison has been built in Wellingborough. Can the Minister tell me how many of the new prison officers will be working there, and when the prison might open? If he cannot do so now, will he write to me, please?
The Minister is boasting about the number of prison officers who have been recruited this year, but the Ministry’s own figures show that 35 prisons—a third of the total—have suffered a fall in frontline officer numbers since January this year. Is this another example of what the former director-general of the Prison Service now describes as Ministers
“doing nothing except issue cheery press releases...which suggest all is going precisely to plan”?
It has nothing to do with “cheery press releases”. There are 868 people on the payroll, who have started work in our prisons and are doing a heroic and brave job. We promised to invest £100 million to recruit 2,500 new officers by the end of 2013, and we are on track to deliver that target. Of course there are wider issues in our prison system, such as the retention of officers, but we are working on those. We are also going beyond that, recruiting smart graduates to work on the frontline, and we have exceeded our targets for the Unlocked programme.
Those are not boasts. It was the Opposition who talked prison officers down and said that no one would want to work in our prisons. It is good to see people stepping up to do what is a brave and challenging job.
My priorities as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State are to uphold and defend the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, and to ensure that our prisons are safe and secure places that also work effectively, and with the probation service, to rehabilitate offenders. That means strengthening the frontline in the way described by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), but it also means that we need to respond better to reports from prison inspectors. I am therefore setting up a new unit, ultimately accountable to Ministers, to ensure that we respond to, and follow up, inspectors’ reports swiftly and effectively.
As of 30 June this year, there were 6,792 convicted foreign-national offenders serving sentences in our prisons. In 2016-17, we removed 6,177 such offenders from the United Kingdom—that is including prisoner transfers—and that is the highest number since records began.
This summer I was proud to sign up to the campaign launched by Gina Martin to change the law so that the disgraceful practice of so-called upskirting is made a specific sexual offence. So will the Minister finally join with us today in backing this call for a change in the law?
I have taken very seriously the representations made not only by Gina Martin, but by some of the police and crime commissioners around the country. I have asked for detailed advice on this, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand that, before proceeding to a commitment to legislation, I want to be absolutely certain that this would be the right course to take.
T3. Legal services in the UK are rightly held in the highest regard around the world and are a major asset to our economy. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we champion and defend the interests of the legal sector in this country? (900706)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: legal services exports contribute a trade surplus of £3.4 billion to the UK economy. The UK is a global leader in dispute settlement. We are working with the sector to promote this key comparative advantage. It is a priority for the Brexit negotiations, and, as a global leader, this is the message my ministerial colleague Lord Keen will be taking to the International Bar Association conference in Australia just next month.
T2. Last week a report from the committee of the United Nations made 60 recommendations to the Government on how they could better comply with the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. How will the Government respond, and what changes in Government policy can disabled people expect to see as a result? (900705)
It is obviously for the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work and the Department for Work and Pensions to decide overall on the Government response to that report. However, I think that the Government were right to express disappointment that the report failed to acknowledge the significant advances this Government have made in improving the lot of disabled people in this country, not least in seeing a record number of people with disabilities now in employment.
I assume my hon. Friend is referring to the upgrades in the prison estate, where we are investing £1.3 billion to modernise the estate. As part of that, we will be building 10,000 modern prison places. That should help with offender rehabilitation. In terms of where we are now, we have started with the proposed developments at Glen Parva and HMP Wellingborough, and we have also announced plans to build four new prisons: in Yorkshire, adjacent to Full Sutton; at Port Talbot in Wales; and the redevelopment of the young offender institutions at Rochester and Hindley.
T4. Given the problems the Department has had when it has privatised many of its services, it seems extraordinary that there are now plans to privatise the collection of court fines and outsource the work of civil enforcement officers. When will the Government appreciate that the public expect these sensitive public services to be delivered by the public, not a bunch of cowboys? (900707)
T9. Can the Minister update me on when the revised version of practice direction 12J will be adopted and how the Government will ensure that judges and magistrates are aware of the change in order to improve guidance for judges overseeing child contact cases with allegations of domestic abuse? (900712)
We are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to improve the treatment of victims in the justice system. In relation to the practice direction to which my hon. Friend refers, we expect to receive the revised version from the president of the family division for ministerial agreement by the end of this month.
T6. Since the election, hundreds of constituents have contacted me about our current animal cruelty laws, which are not fit for purpose. A maximum prison sentence of six months for some of the most appalling crimes, including torturing a dog to death, is completely unacceptable. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that the sentencing guidelines are rigorously reviewed and strengthened? (900709)
I share the hon. Lady’s desire to see the most robust sentences for animal cruelty. The Government keep the sentencing framework under regular review, and I am not sure whether she is aware that in January the Sentencing Council published new guidelines on relevant aggravating factors in animal cruelty cases.
In the past 18 months, three of my constituents have died in HMP Bristol, which has one of the highest numbers of self-inflicted deaths in custody. What reassurance can be provided that that prison is being given the scrutiny and support that it needs to get those figures down?
Every death in custody is a tragedy, and I offer my condolences to the families of my hon. Friend’s constituents. We have increased the staffing level at HMP Bristol by 31 prison officers in the past year. I chair a weekly safer custody meeting with officials to drive forward improvements, and I review the details of every self-inflicted death to see how we might prevent others. We have also launched an internal review of our approach to safer custody, specifically in relation to mental health patients, and I would be willing to visit my hon. Friend’s prison in order to deal with this further.
T7. Last week, a Tory peer said that Brexit was a good thing because our young people would be able to work longer hours. Can the Minister confirm that his Government will continue to guarantee protections for workers in accordance with the European working time directive? (900710)
The Prime Minister could not have been clearer: we are committed to the best possible employment conditions for all British workers. We have a fine record of achievement on that, and we will ensure that when we leave the EuropeanUnion, there is no diminution in workers’ rights.
In January last year, an Afghan national who had previously served time for murder in the Netherlands attacked two Crawley police officers with a clawhammer. Recently, the Court of Appeal has reduced his sentence. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Sussex Police Federation’s requests to the Home Office will ensure that he is deported at the earliest opportunity?
I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that the views of the Police Federation and others in his constituency will be conveyed fully to the Home Office. It remains the Government’s collective will to ensure that those foreign national offenders who merit deportation are deported as soon as possible after serving their sentence.
I am always bewildered by the approach of the Opposition to the charter. When Labour was in power, it claimed, rather fraudulently, that it was seeking an opt-out, but now that it is out of office and we are leaving the EU, it wants to opt back in. We have the strongest protections for human rights in this country, and they have been reinforced. We are going to see no diminution in those protections, but the charter adds uncertainty and is frankly surplus to requirements.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the pilot scheme that allowed the filming of judges’ sentencing remarks in criminal courts has been a success? Will he now consider going further in allowing the broadcasting of court proceedings, so that justice is not just done but seen to be done?
We have made considerable progress in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, and my right hon. Friend is right to say that one of the areas under review is the broadcasting of judges’ sentencing remarks in the Crown court. Last year, we conducted not-for-broadcast tests in eight Crown court centres, and we are looking at the experience from those trials with the judiciary in order to see how best to proceed.
T10. Last year, 316 people died in our prisons. Emails from prison doctors printed in the media a few days ago say that there are not enough medical staff in our prisons and that urgent hospital referrals are being cancelled because of prison escort shortages. What are the Justice Secretary and the Health Secretary planning to do to tackle this growing healthcare crisis in custody? (900713)
We are very conscious that the Government have a duty of care to everyone we hold in custody. We are working with the Department of Health on a number of protocols, including some relating to mental health, as well as working to ensure that prisoners get access to the healthcare that they need, when they need it.
While I welcome the Minister’s news about increased prison officer numbers in HMP Bristol in my constituency, I am concerned by the Department’s figures, which show that 1,770 experienced prison officers left the service last year. What is the Minister doing urgently to retain valuable experienced prison officers for the longer term?
It is always the case that people will leave an organisation voluntarily or due to retirement or—[Interruption.] May I finish my point? In some cases, people may leave because they have not been too happy with what has been happening in our Prison Service. A retention plan is available, but the numbers that I gave earlier—868 net new prison officers so far this year—take account of people leaving the service, so we are actually up on last year’s figures.
Having recently met the governor of Styal prison in my constituency, I know that drones are an increasing problem in prisons, as is the illegal use of mobile phones. The two are linked because mobile phones allow for greater frequency and accuracy of drone activity. Does the Minister agree that the way to curb drone activity and stop illegal mobile phone use is to block phone signals in prison? Will he support my private Member’s Bill to do that? The Second Reading is on 1 December.
The Minister’s plans to build a prison on the Baglan industrial park in my constituency are causing a huge amount of concern and disquiet within the community. May I urge the Minister to come to the public meeting that I have organised on 20 September in Baglan to explain the position to the community?
The hon. Gentleman is aware that Ministers do not attend public consultation events about obtaining planning permission for new prisons. He is also aware that the Port Talbot site was proposed alongside several other sites by the Welsh Government, who continue to support us in redeveloping the site for the purpose of the new prison. I have received his representations on behalf of his constituents—he is diligent and persistent—and we also had a meeting on 12 July. Subject to the two-day consultation, which is more than would ordinarily happen, I am willing to engage further with him on what could be done to ameliorate his constituents’ concerns.
Will the Secretary of State look at how families are treated by the insurance industry when a householder gets a criminal conviction? The Salvation Army recently highlighted several cases in which insurance had either been denied or made prohibitively expensive in a way that seems to me, as a former chartered insurer, to be neither reasonable nor necessary.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the Lord Chief Justice, who will have retired by the next Justice questions, both for his integrity as a judge and for his modernising work as head of the judiciary in England and Wales?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in his salute to Lord Thomas, who has been a formidable and exemplary leader of the professional judiciary. What has struck me in the short time that I have held my office is the enormous respect and affection in which Lord Thomas is held by his colleagues on the judicial bench. I am sure the entire House will want to wish him all the best.
In the last Parliament, a joint report of the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee found widespread exploitation of women at work, and especially of young women in vulnerable employment. Now that the barrier of fees has been removed, will the Minister look seriously at the report’s recommendations and work with other Departments to ensure that women are aware of their access to justice?
Did the Secretary of State read the letter in the press by the widow of our late colleague, Ian Gow, contrasting the fact that the two IRA murderers suspected of killing him have no fear of arrest with the recent revelation that hundreds, if not thousands, of letters are being sent out to veterans of the troubles with a view to further prosecutions? Will he support the policy of a statute of limitations to put an end to this grotesque inequality of treatment?
The answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is that, yes, I did read the letter to which he refers. Those matters, as he knows, are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is very concerned to ensure that a proper examination of the past, and a search for the truth about the past, does not lead to the unfair and disproportionate arraignment of British soldiers who stood firmly for democracy and human rights in Northern Ireland.
The Minister will be aware of the serious disorder at HMP Birmingham in my constituency on Sunday, which follows the very serious riot in December 2016 and serious incidents at other prisons across the country over the summer months. Clearly our prisons are in absolute crisis. Is it not time that we had an independent inquiry into the state of our prisons?
We have already said that the level of violence in our prisons is too high. I spoke to the Gold Commander at HMP Birmingham on Sunday night, and we should first praise the professionalism of the Prison Service in dealing with what are very difficult and very challenging situations in our prisons. Of course, a key part of dealing with the stability and security problem in our prisons is increasing the staffing levels, on which there has been a number of questions today, and we are doing so. A wider part of the reforms is dealing with drones, mobile phones and illegal drugs, and it will take time to do that, but I praise our prison officers for their brave work in containing these disturbances.
Violence in Rakhine State
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for raising this matter and giving the Government the opportunity to detail the significant action we have taken. Overnight on 24 August, members of the Rohingya militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army—the ARSA—attacked numerous police posts in northern Rakhine. Even in the days prior to that escalation of hostilities, our embassy in Rangoon had been monitoring the situation very carefully, including travelling to the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe. We understand that tens of thousands of people have crossed the border into Bangladesh.
Kofi Annan’s Rakhine advisory commission report was published immediately prior to the attacks. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and I issued a joint statement at that time welcoming the report, but also condemning the attacks by Rohingya militants on Burmese security forces. At the same time, the UK strongly urged the security forces in Rakhine to show restraint and called for all parties to de-escalate the tensions.
On 30 August, at the UK’s request, the UN Security Council discussed the situation in Rakhine. Our UK representative in New York led the condemnation of attacks by Rohingya militants, and urged a measured and proportionate response from the security forces. We also called for humanitarian aid to reach those in need as soon as possible and offered UK support for the Rakhine advisory commission, encouraging the international community to do likewise. The recent violence serves to underline how important it is to address the long-term issues in Rakhine and deliver for all communities; it should not deflect the Burmese Government from the key task of addressing the underlying issues that have caused people to flee. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, it is vital that the civilian Government of Burma receive the support of the Burmese military, and that Aung San Suu Kyi is not thwarted in her attempts to stabilise the situation.
Along with de-escalating the fighting, our immediate priority is how urgent food and medical assistance can be provided to displaced citizens from all communities. Our ambassador in Rangoon has rightly been lobbying the Burmese Government on that, and they have confirmed that they are trying to get humanitarian aid through to communities most in need. As many will know, that is being hampered by the security situation and by inter-communal tensions.
Our high commissioner in Dhaka, Bangladesh, has also discussed the increasingly acute humanitarian situation with the Government there, and I discussed the situation with the Bangladeshi high commissioner last week. I look forward to discussing these issues further tomorrow at a meeting arranged some weeks ago with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), the co-chair of the all-party group on Burma, as well as to paying a ministerial visit to Burma in the near future.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I am a little disappointed by the Minister’s response, as he started by suggesting that somehow the Rohingya Muslims and these people had caused this to occur. He must be aware that for a number of years there has been the systematic rape, murder, burning and beheading of people from the Rohingya community. If it is suggested that there may have been some attacks on the police stations, that is not a sufficient reason to attempt almost to explain away what the Burmese Government are now doing to these people. Everyone knows that for years now that the Government, the security forces and the Buddhist monks have been ransacking and killing people—murdering and raping women and children. This is only a climax to the brutality that the Burmese have been carrying out against these people.
Is the Minister aware that because of what has happened recently, many young children have been beheaded and civilians have been burned alive by the military forces? Is he aware that 120,000 Rohingya have fled for their lives to Bangladesh? Will he actually condemn this campaign of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims? Is he aware that Human Rights Watch has satellite imagery showing the destruction of entire Rohingya villages, and that there are reports of people there being rounded up into huts and burned alive? Recent reports also show a massive cover-up by the soldiers who have carried out massacres of Rohingya, by gathering their bodies up and burning them.
This is one of the worst outbreaks of violence in decades, yet the international community is, in effect, remaining silent as we watch another Srebrenica and Rwanda unfold before our eyes. Does the Minister agree that the situation requires urgent intervention? What concrete action have the Government and the Prime Minister taken to date to deal with it? Is he aware that UN aid and monitors have not been allowed in? Will the Government make further representations to the UN Security Council about the ethnic cleansing now taking place? Can consideration be given to an immediate intervention by the UN Security Council to deal with this situation? As journalist Peter Oborne said in this morning’s Daily Mail:
“The Rohingya people were loyal allies of Britain in World War II. Now they face their darkest hour.”
We must take immediate action to help them, and I am very sorry about, and disappointed in, the Minister’s starting response.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady is so disappointed; had she heard what I had to say, it would have been clear that we have been monitoring this situation for some time. Indeed, through diplomatic sources, we have made sure that our heartfelt concerns have been heard. It was thanks to a British lead that the issue was discussed at the UN over the past week. One has to remember that obviously a huge amount of attention has been given to issues relating to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which the House will discuss later.
The hon. Lady asked precisely what we are now doing. It is worth pointing out some aspects of the humanitarian aid we are going to put in place. As she is well aware, the UK has rightly and proudly been one of the largest development and humanitarian donors to Burma, and particularly to the Rakhine state, over many years. Since 2012, the Department for International Development has provided more than £30 million in humanitarian assistance, including for food and sanitation, for more than 126,000 people. More important, given the unfolding situation, the UK is the largest single bilateral donor supporting displaced Rohingya refugees and the vulnerable communities that host them in Bangladesh. DFID has allocated some £20.9 million for humanitarian aid responses between 2017 and 2022.
Because of the acute nature of the problems, to which the hon. Lady referred, we will keep an eye on exactly what happens. Please rest assured that the Government will do all they can to condemn when condemnation is the right way forward, but she is well aware that the politics of Burma are incredibly tense and difficult. We have hopefully moved away from a 55-year period of military rule. As far as we can, the international community should support civilian rule under Aung San Suu Kyi.
Order. There is substantial interest in this question, which I am keen—up to a point—to accommodate, but colleagues will be aware that there are three ministerial statements to follow, in which there can be expected to be substantial interest. Colleagues from Back and Front Benches alike need to help me to help them. There will be a premium upon brevity, now to be brilliantly exemplified by Mr Tom Tugendhat.
How is my right hon. Friend’s relationship with China going? As we all remember, the Chinese influence in the seeking of a peace agreement in some of the northern areas of Burma was instrumental in delivering humanitarian effects like those we wish to achieve in the Rakhine state. Will he say a little more about the Bangladeshi Government, and perhaps praise them for their extraordinary work in welcoming so many Muslim Rohingya people? I welcome the Foreign Office’s efforts in supporting that work.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I was in Beijing only 10 days ago; he will appreciate that attention was focused largely on the DPRK and, to an extent, issues relating to Afghanistan and Pakistan. I suspect we will have a chance before too long to discuss the issues relating to Burma with counterparts in China. I echo my hon. Friend’s words about the Bangladeshi authorities, with whom I had a strong relationship as a member and officer of the all-party group on Bangladesh for some seven years before I took up ministerial office. He is absolutely right that a terrific amount of work has taken place, and it will continue to take place in what is a fraught situation.
The vast majority of Rohingyas want nothing but peace, but it is they who have suffered most as a result of the violence committed, supposedly in their name, by a small number of armed militants. Because of so-called collective punishment for such attacks, more than 100,000 innocent Rohingya men, women and children have been forced to flee their homes in a campaign that UN officials say may amount to ethnic cleansing. Many displaced Rohingyas have ended up in squalid camps, and, according to UN figures published today, some 35,000 have fled across the border to Bangladesh in the past 24 hours alone. There, and in Myanmar itself, these families are in desperate need of our aid.
I am sure the Minister will share the deep disappointment of many Members of this House at the failure of Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar’s civilian Government, to speak out more forcefully against human rights abuses in Rakhine. It is, though, General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, who of course bears ultimate responsibility for the army’s atrocities. It is he who ultimately must be held to account.
The Minister must do more than express disappointment, important though that is. The Government must do everything they can to help to bring an end to this senseless violence. Ministers must set clear and unambiguous red lines for Myanmar’s authorities—civilian and military—when it comes to respecting human rights. If those red lines are crossed, there should be consequences. For instance, in the light of recent events, it seems wholly inappropriate that in the past three years this Government have sold weapons worth more than half a million pounds to the Government of Myanmar.
Will the Minister now accept that his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence demonstrated shockingly poor judgment in spending a quarter of a million pounds—from the aid budget no less—on training members of Myanmar’s army? Will he also accept that it was a serious error of judgment for the Minister of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), to say by way of explanation that such programmes ensure that other countries learn about British values and human rights?
Does the Minister agree that it simply cannot be right for Britain to continue to provide military aid to a country where human rights abuses are so rampant? If he accepts that, will he demonstrate his Government’s commitment to the Rohingya people by immediately suspending military aid until Myanmar’s army can demonstrate that it is both able and willing to protect the rights of all the country’s citizens?
I thank the hon. Lady for her heartfelt comments. Those issues, which are clearly for the Ministry of Defence, will be under review, and I will ensure that her comments are passed on and that she is kept up to date. Contrary to some of the press reports, I think it is important to clarify precisely what the UK does provide. We do not provide any form of combat training to the Burmese military. The UK provides vocational courses, focused on language training, governance, accountability, ethics, human rights and international law. The UK rightly believes in using elements of our DFID money on programmes of real and lasting change. Such change will only come about from engaging with the Burmese military. Exposing them to how modern militaries operate in a democracy is more effective than isolating them. The content of the educational courses that we provide—the hon. Lady referred to a quarter of a million pounds—complies entirely with the UK’s commitments under the EU arms embargo.
There is more that the Government can do as a convening force, bringing together the countries that are involved with the Rohingya. There are problems not just in Rakhine or in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, but with the hideous trafficking of the Rohingya people down through Thailand and into Malaysia. Given the goodwill that we have in Bangladesh and Burma and, to a lesser extent, in Thailand and Malaysia, will the Foreign Office consider convening a meeting to look at this issue and at how we can improve the lives of these people?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his words. I know that he, having held the post that I now hold, has a lot of knowledge of the area. As I pointed out in my initial comments, after the violence broke out on 25 August, the UK, as a matter of urgency, spoke out and took a lead not just in issuing statements but in ensuring that we had a UN Security Council discussion on 30 August—at a time when the UN was looking at other matters. He is absolutely right to suggest that this situation must be looked at in the context of Malaysia and of other neighbouring states in the region, and not just in the context of Bangladesh. Our ambassador has lobbied the Burmese Government, and our high commission in Dhaka has also discussed the situation with the Government of Bangladesh. We will continue to keep a close eye on developments. I hope that we can do that partly through the UN and other international bodies. My right hon. Friend’s suggestion that the UK brings things together is something that, uniquely, we have some authority to do. I hope that we shall do so if there is any escalation of the situation in the weeks ahead.
The recent violence in Rakhine state and the long-standing persecution of the Rohingya are appalling and must end immediately. In the past two weeks alone, some 120,000 refugees have fled the violence in Rakhine state, and the two main UN camps in Bangladesh are now overflowing. We ask the Government and the military of Myanmar to remove all restrictions on entry to Rakhine state for the media, aid agencies and non-governmental organisations, as the world must be allowed to see what is happening and to help people in need.
While attacks by Rohingya militants are not to be condoned, the Government and military of Myanmar have a responsibility to protect civilians in all communities from violence and displacement, and they must begin to do so immediately. Will the Minister therefore make a commitment to work immediately with the UN and the Bangladeshi Government to provide urgent aid, food and water to refugees both inside and outside the camps?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words. He will appreciate that I have already touched on some of the issues in relation to Bangladesh.
I, too, am concerned on behalf of the UK Government that Burma has dissociated itself from elements of the fact-finding mission to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Following the last set of attacks in October 2016, the UK co-sponsored a resolution at the Human Rights Council setting up a fact-finding mission to look into the human rights situation in Burma. We will continue forcefully to urge Burma to co-operate with the mission and its mandate, and as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the more the world sees what is going on, particularly on the border of Bangladesh and Burma, the more urgent attention we can give to the Burmese authorities to ensure that this terrible humanitarian crisis comes to a close at the earliest opportunity.
We must acknowledge the wrongdoings of the minority armed group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, but the disproportionate response has escalated violence and enflamed a long-running human rights problem. It has also left other states such as Bangladesh, as we have heard, to carry a significant burden. Does the Minister agree that we should recognise the pivotal role that Aung San Suu Kyi plays in bringing democracy to what remains a fragile country, but if we are ever to get back to talking about democratic structures, trade, healthcare and education in that country we need a long-standing solution that will work to bring the human rights crisis to an end, so that the Rohingya Muslims can live peacefully? Will the Minister outline what we are doing, so that we can cope without UK aid for the increasing numbers of people who are fleeing to Bangladesh?
I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that he does, both as an officer of the all-party group on Burma and for Bangladesh. He will be aware that the 2008 constitution in Burma grants the military 25% of seats in Parliament as well as control of defence, border affairs and home affairs Ministries. That situation has entrenched the role of the security forces since the coup in 1962 and makes it difficult for life to have any normality as we understand it. In that context, we have to recognise the amazingly courageous behaviour of leader Aung San Suu Kyi. I can understand the disappointment of the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), but we have to look at this in the context of Aung San Suu Kyi trying to play a role that has made life better for many Burmese citizens—not, I accept, for the Rohingya population down in the south-west.
Imagine the situation if there were another coup d’état and Aung San Suu Kyi was removed from the scene, and we went back to fully fledged military rule. That would be a calamitous outcome for the Burmese people. We need to do all that we can to support the moves, slow as they are, towards some sort of democracy as we would understand it in Burma. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) rightly said, the role of Aung San Suu Kyi and her international standing is critical in ensuring that some sort of normality comes to pass in the years to come.
I welcome the Minister’s remarks, because it is incongruous and incomprehensible that Aung San Suu Kyi, for so long a beacon for human rights, has not stepped in to intervene in the face of an horrendous military crackdown that has burned down 17 villages and left 250,000 people without access to food. What is his assessment of the power struggles between the Burmese Government and the military, and how can we best help those who wish to uphold human rights to gain the upper hand?
I thank the hon. Lady for her words. As she says, the one person many British folk with relatively little knowledge or experience of Burma remember is Aung San Suu Kyi, so they are dismayed. It is worth pointing out the sectarian complexities of Burmese society, along with the lack of democracy as we would understand it for over five decades, as that plays an important role in the concerns that the hon. Lady has expressed.
After the most recent escalation in Rakhine state, a number of statements were released by the Burmese information office. I have to say that these were not released with the consent of, or directly by, Aung San Suu Kyi. The information office is run by a former military officer. We understand that the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, has now removed her name from that office. That gives some indication of the level of tensions and the complexity of what is going on in Burma.
May I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on the tone and manner of her question, associate myself with the direction of her interrogation of the Minister and gently say how disappointed I was with the Minister’s tone, which sounded pretty close to dumping the blame for this ethnic cleansing on the victim community? Will he say a little more about our expectations of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is leading a Government and military forces who are associated with behaviour that is utterly unacceptable by any standard at all?
I am sorry that my hon. Friend chooses to use the opportunity to grandstand in the way that he does—[Interruption.] The House has voted on that matter already, as we know. As far as this matter is concerned, we have made it very clear that we feel that Aung San Suu Kyi and her Government need to step up to the plate. We are not in any way forgiving or understanding of the terrible violence and its impact. It is worth pointing out that the entrenched security forces, including the army, police and border guard force, are responsible for the security operations that are currently under way in Rakhine state. We have made that absolutely clear. We will support Burma’s ongoing transition from military dictatorship to a civilian-led democracy. This is very much an ongoing process, led by the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi.
The appalling persecution of the Rohingya is long standing and well documented. I concur with the remarks of the former Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt); I was very disappointed with the statement made in response to the urgent question.
I have two questions for the Minister. On aid, reports today suggest that 30,000 Rohingyas are stranded in the mountains between Bangladesh and Burma. What is being done to address that in practical terms? There has to be a political solution in the long term. Does the Minister agree with the Nobel laureate, Malala, who yesterday appealed to Aung San Suu Kyi, saying that the citizenship of Myanmar has to be given to the Rohingya, so that they cease to be stateless people?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise just how complicated the situation with the Rohingya is. I suspect that the matter has been in his in-tray throughout his time as Chair of the Select Committee on International Development. In fairness, we are trying our best to get reliable information on the ground, which is difficult, as he will appreciate. We understand that 123,000 people have fled from Burma into Bangladesh. He may well be right that there are tens of thousands more in some halfway house, not able to make their way but desperate to do so.
I have tried to point out that we are not standing by innocently. We are doing all we can. In many ways, Britain has taken a lead at the UN, which will ultimately be the body that will have to deal, to a large extent, with elements of this humanitarian crisis. It is also worth pointing out that we have to be realistic about the manner in which the UN operates. The Security Council will require a unanimous vote or at least no veto. It is very difficult to see how, even within the P5, we would be able to get that for the reasons alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat).
These are difficult issues. We have done all we can and will continue to do so on the ground in Rangoon and—probably even more importantly in the months and years ahead—in Dhaka. We will do our bit and more to ensure that the humanitarian aspects of this crisis are kept to an absolute minimum.
Over 120,000 Rohingyas have been displaced and 17 villages have been torched, with thousands of deaths. Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that Aung San Suu Kyi is yet to live up to her Nobel peace prize, call out what is fast becoming a genocide and assist Rohingyas fleeing persecution?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. I have tried to explain the situation as it applies to statements that were put out in Aung San Suu Kyi’s name that did not reflect her views on these matters. As I have said, there is disappointment for many people; there was a sense that the moment Aung San Suu Kyi came into office—only a year ago—somehow everything would be transformed. The issues in Burma are, I am afraid, considerably more complex than that. It is vital that we do as much as we can to support Aung San Suu Kyi and the transition—slow as it may be—towards a fully fledged democracy. There remains a huge amount of good will for her work, which will be critical if we are to get any sort of resolution to these terrible events in the months ahead.
I thank the hon. Lady. Yes, I did. Obviously, this is a fluid situation. The trade envoy will be heading out to Burma again before too long, as well as to other parts of the world. Let us be honest about it: as far as Burma is concerned, the issues around trade are entirely secondary to the humanitarian issues to which she referred. It is perfectly legitimate for those on the Opposition Front Bench to make the statements they did about past trade in weaponry and the like, but, equally, we are now in a very different, much more critical humanitarian situation. The hon. Lady can rest assured that, as far as our diplomats on both sides of the Bangladesh-Burma border are concerned, the focus will be exclusively on humanitarian rather than trade issues.
I raise this as a genuine point to the Minister. Having looked at civilian transitions from military Governments in other parts of the world, will he say today whether, according to his moral conscience, Aung San Suu Kyi has done enough to challenge the mass murder of Rohingyas in Burma?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The truth of the matter is that we do not know precisely what is going on. That is one of the difficulties about Burmese society and the complexities around the Burmese political and military situation. Just what is happening out there is difficult to gauge. I have obviously spoken to our ambassador in Rangoon. He has reassured me that representations are being made on a regular basis. My understanding from what he has said is that the concerns my hon. Friend pointed out are being felt in the very highest ranks of the Burmese Government. So there is no suggestion, to my mind at least, that Aung San Suu Kyi has been guilty of anything other than keeping a very close eye on what is a desperate situation. However, the notion that she has full control over what happens in the military, particularly down in Rakhine, is, I am afraid, a long way from the reality of the situation in Burma and Burmese politics.
I participated in the induction programme for the new Parliament last year, and I appreciate the challenges facing Burma as it transitions towards democracy. I also appreciate the efforts made by the UK Government and Parliament—let us not overlook its role—in supporting that democratic development. Surely, though, it is vital that the UK Government and this Parliament continually restate their belief that citizenship for the Rohingya is an essential part of that transition.
I thank the hon. Lady for her words. Prior to taking on this role, I was vice-chairman for international affairs in the Conservative party and worked with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and although I did not specifically do work myself in Burma, I am well aware that a lot of work goes on in a cross-party, integrated programme. Yes, I accept that the citizenship issue is live. As the hon. Lady will be well aware, the sectarian divisions are very pronounced in that part of the world. As many will know, there was a suggestion that when Burma was formed in the aftermath of the second world war or when Bangladesh was formed in 1971, the Rohingya, as ethnic Bengalis, should have been in that part of the world. I fear that all those are very live issues in Burmese politics. They are very complicated issues for us to entirely make a judgment on, but that is not to say that there will not be an open debate on them from our diplomats on the ground.
My right hon. Friend the Minister is right to say that it must be difficult to get reliable and accurate information on the ground, in which case his offer of a ministerial visit should come sooner rather than later. When he goes, will he make sure that he visits both sides of the border, with a particular emphasis on following the DFID aid stream to satisfy himself that our aid is getting to where it is needed?